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Hume lifted curtain on Troubles to let peace light in


Former SDLP leader John Hume. Photo: PA

Former SDLP leader John Hume. Photo: PA

Former SDLP leader John Hume. Photo: PA

Much is made of the hand of history, but it was the hand of John Hume which pulled back the black drapes which hung so heavily over the North throughout the Troubles, allowing the first light of peace to break through.

When civil rights leaders were being batoned off the streets to the strains of "We shall Overcome" in Derry and Belfast, Hume kept an improbable hope alive.

Despite decades of bombings, shoot-to-kill policies, bloody atrocity after atrocity by the IRA and various loyalist groups, and murder gangs, he clung to a core belief that the duty of the democrat was to live, not die, for their country.

For his pains, he was vilified by those who saw his idealism as heresy in their fanatical fervour.

He showed superhuman forbearance as he faced down an establishment balanced heavily in favour of the union.

He also stood up to those who sought to exploit the festering discrimination and sectarianism which had kept the North at boiling point.

With men like Seamus Mallon and Mark Durkan, he laid the foundations for a path to peace.

When Gerry Adams sought to bring the IRA in from the cold, Hume showed extraordinary personal courage. He put everything, including the future of the party he had helped to build, on the line.

Former foreign affairs minister Liz O'Donnell described how for Hume, three essential principles were vital. Firstly, a rejection of violence. Secondly, Irish unity could only be achieved with the consent of the majority. Thirdly, nationalism was a legitimate ideology but progress could only be made by political means in a power-sharing government.

What now sounds reasonable, if not obvious, was then revolutionary given the political slum the North had become.

In his poem 'Derry', Seamus Deane wrote:

"The thought of violence a relief,

The act of violence a grief

Our bitterness and love

Hand in glove."

Hume loved 'The Maiden City' and its people. But he'd seen too much heartbreak at the hands of hooded trigger-men on all sides to be taken in.

If he was fundamentally humanitarian he was also a pragmatic visionary. While he may have abhorred barricades and borders, he recognised such manifestations of division would only be dismantled through common understanding, and respect for both sides.

"Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5million people divided into two powerful traditions. The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people."

Unfortunately, John Hume never got to see a full meeting of those hearts and minds. More must be done. But his greatness lies in the fact he brought them closer than anyone else had ever dared to dream, let alone thought possible.

Irish Independent